Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Even as the Stormers top the overall and SA conference tables after two rounds of Super Rugby, the near-constant injury bugbear at Newlands continues.
Confirmation that aggressive utility forward Rynhardt Elstadt has fractured his fibula (the long,thin and lateral bone of the lower leg), at the very least, means the franchise will spend the next few weeks or more without his services – a particular blow given his usefulness in covering both the six and seven flank positions as well as No 4 lock in a taxing competition where such players are worth gold.
The luckless 25-year-old has had plenty of previous brushes with medical setback, but had been toiling honestly as a robust open-sider in the tournament-opening wins against the Bulls at Loftus and then Saturday’s 27-16 follow-up victory over the Blues in the first home fixture.
Although well less than convincing on the day, and hugely aided by veteran lock Hayden Triggs’s red-card misdemeanour in the first half, the Stormers jointly top the standings alongside the Hurricanes – a rare two wins from two in their early South African safari – on eight points.
Long-term injury woes have stalked the Capetonian outfit with special heartlessness in recent seasons, but the one silver lining on this occasion is that, even as Elstadt bids goodbye to the dressing room for a fair old while, they look suitably equipped in both the second row and at loose forward to cushion the blow this time.
Springbok Eben Etzebeth is supposedly back in the mix, following his chest injury in pre-season, for the visit to Johannesburg to play the wobbling Lions next Saturday, and the same should apply to Argentinean international Manuel Carizza and young Jean Kleyn.
Another versatile, emerging forward in Jurie van Vuuren served the cause solidly at No 4 alongside the increasingly impressive, lanky Ruan Botha against the Blues, although Stormers enthusiasts may well relish the possibility of Etzebeth finally being paired with Botha very shortly.
That alliance looks a potentially lethal combination of skill, grunt and lineout and scrummaging prowess.
Similarly, there is good reason to believe that the present healthy depth at loose forward will compensate for Elstadt’s absence.
It was a gratifying situation that they could immediately call on Nizaam Carr, the 23-year-old dynamo who had a stellar 2014 and earned maiden Springbok caps at year’s end, from the bench.
Carr has been gradually recovering from a debilitating virus picked up in pre-season but showed good signs after entering the fray before half-time that he is close to full fitness again – if anything his extra mobility and peripheral awareness restores better balance to the Stormers loosies.
Adding him to incumbents Duane Vermeulen and Michael Rhodes means they have most bases in an ideal starting loose trio covered.
There is also a plentiful reserve arsenal in that area: names like Siya Kolisi, who has begun his own comeback, Sikhumbuzo Notshe and of course the seriously seasoned Schalk Burger (soon back from Japan) come to mind.
Meanwhile, if things are going pretty swimmingly down south so far, the Sharks will be in significantly improved spirit further up the coast, where they overcame atrocious conditions to bag an unlikely four-try, full-house triumph over the Lions.
What a difference a week can make: suddenly their palpable weakness last weekend against the Cheetahs – the scrum – turned major strength against a side previously quite renowned for fancying themselves in that department.
The Sharks mastery there knocked the stuffing out of the Lions mentally, and no man stood up more strongly after his difficulty last week than veteran Springbok tighthead anchorman Jannie du Plessis, even as his brother and captain Bismarck was adjudged official player of the match.
Others in the home ranks to tick boxes emphatically included Pieter-Steph du Toit for his tireless work at the fulcrum of mauls and flyhalf Pat Lambie, who looked accomplished in the sort of wet conditions that may just face the Boks at the 2015 World Cup in the UK.
Especially if they can sustain the set-piece improvement, the Sharks will feel confident about their chances of beating the presently fragile Bulls in next weekend’s Loftus derby.
But it is a really high-stakes clash for the men from Pretoria, who will struggle either to win the domestic conference or qualify for the playoffs from there if they go nought from three ...
Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Highlanders v Reds, 08:35; Force v Hurricanes, 13:00; Cheetahs v Blues, 19:10. Saturday: Chiefs v Crusaders, 08:35; Rebels v Brumbies, 10:40; Bulls v Sharks, 17:05; Lions v Stormers, 19:10. Bye: Waratahs.
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